Misconceptions of Left vs Right (Part 2)


Last week’s column addressed the origin of the terms left and right, as well as two of their more common interpretations: authoritarian vs. libertarian and liberal vs. conservative. There still remains quite a few dichotomies that attempt to define left and right, each of which will be analyzed for accuracy.

Chesterton’s Fence

Chesterton’s Fence refers to the quotation below from G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing.

‘In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it”.’

To summarize, Chesterton’s Fence refers to two different approaches taken when encountering a fence. One approach is to tear down the fence because it is causing a problem, while the second approach is more cautious about changing things. This example has been referenced recently by Michael Malice on the Tom Woods Show.

When applied as a dichotomy to left and right, the left fits the first category. To be on the left is to prioritize tearing down problematic structures and systems within society. To be right is to prioritize the preservation of the established system. If humans have been practicing a tradition for thousands of years, the right says we must tread carefully if we are to divert from such a tradition.

Even though Chesterton’s writing clearly favors the second approach assigned to the right-wing, applying this to left and right does not necessarily mean that one is better than the other. A successful society requires both left and right, especially when defining them in this manner. Perhaps the fence was built for a reason that is no longer relevant. In that case, the fence should be removed to make room for something better. But it may also be true that the fence is vitally important, and tearing down the fence without serious consideration to the consequences would cause problems.

There are certain issues (especially issues concerning civil rights) where the left-wing position is extremely valuable. Tearing down the “fence” of enforced segregation was a radical societal change, but it was definitely good thing.

Other times, the right-wing approach is necessary, characterized best by Jordan Peterson, who often takes this approach, especially regarding the recent societal changes to accept trans people. Inclusion and acceptance is a good thing, but perhaps it’s not such a good idea to start dismantling societal structures to the extent of entirely rejecting concepts like biological sex.

For the most part, this dichotomy is very similar to the liberal vs. conservative view. The left is more open to change and the right focuses more on preserving established traditions. For this reason, the same exceptions apply to this ideological template.

However, from this perspective libertarianism would be placed on the left. While they may not agree with much of the modern American left, a viewpoint that prioritizes liberty as its greatest value can be labeled “anti-fence.” If liberty is the ultimate goal, then fences that obstruct liberty must be removed.

Order vs. Chaos

The dichotomy of order vs. chaos is yet another left/right dichotomy that works similarly to the liberal vs. conservative interpretation. In this case, the left leans more toward chaos, and the right more towards order. The left, as described earlier with Chesterton’s Fence, has a greater interest in tearing down structures, while the right is more concerned with maintaining order.

Both this dichotomy and Chesterton’s Fence can be applied rather accurately to the original French Revolution definitions of left and right. The right wished to uphold order, and by maintaining the currently hierarchical structure. The left, meanwhile, was leading a revolution, and continues to favor them.

Revolutions are inherently chaotic. They seek to topple the current structure and establish something new. Sure, this “something new” is meant to restore order in a different manner, but until such is established, the left works to change the current order.

A possible refutation to this dichotomy could be that the left isn’t really anti-order. Once the revolution succeeds and the revolutionaries establish a new order, these new systems are even more “orderly” than the previous system. The Soviet Union controlled so much of society that it could hardly be called chaotic. The entire price system was centrally planned and constantly calculated and revised across an orderly system.

And many of today’s progressives and so-called “democratic socialists” claim that they’re not in favor of overthrowing the whole system, but instead giving more power to the government to centrally plan more of society. Can we really say that such a perspective is any more chaotic than right-wing ideology?

A redeeming factor of the order vs. chaos application to left vs. right is each side’s view of hierarchy. Hierarchies create a system that establishes each person’s place in its structure. Hierarchies create order. While the right is generally in favor of hierarchy, the left tends to oppose it, favoring equality instead.

This next dichotomy (equality vs. hierarchy) will be addressed further in Part 3 of this article, along with even more judgements of the left vs. right ideological spectrum.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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